The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Nov 19, 2013

When I made the goal back in January to read "two 19th-century classics," I knew one of those would be The Woman in White. I also knew that I wouldn't read it until October. I didn't know much about it except that one of the characters was a mysterious woman who dressed all in white and appeared in unusual places and at unusual times, but that was enough to convince me of its appropriate creepiness.

It actually took me the entire month (and then some) to read and finish it. It is a longer book (almost 700 pages), but I listened to it, and usually I get through audio books fairly quickly because I can listen to them while doing other things, and earlier this year I started listening to them at double speed (good thing, too, for the readers of this book were painfully slow, even going twice as fast). I guess I wasn't spending enough time washing the dishes.

The book begins from Walter Hartright's perspective. Mr. Hartright is a drawing master and recently obtained a notable position teaching two young ladies at Limmeridge House in Cumberland. The night before he travels there to take up his position, he is returning home late at night and comes upon a woman dressed entirely in white and distressed beyond words. He helps her as best he can but finds the whole situation very odd and slightly disturbing. The next day, he arrives at Limmeridge House. His employer, Mr. Fairlie, is an insufferable invalid, but his niece, Laura Fairlie, and Laura's half-sister, Marian Halcombe, are delightful.

They enjoy a few weeks of uninterrupted companionship before trouble strikes, beginning with the uncomfortable fact that Mr. Hartright is in love with Laura Fairlie (and she is in love with him, too), but she is betrothed to one Sir Percival Glyde (hiss and boo). Marian advises Mr. Hartright to leave immediately so as to not make the eventual parting any more difficult on himself or Laura. But with the way things transpire, it would have been far better for him to stay close.

Sir Percival Glyde and his sinister friend, Count Fosco (can you think of better villain names than those?), are in the depths of financial troubles. Laura Fairlie's inheritance provides the answer for them, if they can only figure out a way to get their hands on it. And in the midst of all of that, there is the mysterious woman in white who holds a precious secret . . . the unveiling of which could be the means to Laura's freedom and Sir Percival's downfall.

I felt a mounting, growing dread through the first two-thirds of the story. The pieces of the plot were laid out very carefully, one by one, and each was examined thoroughly before moving on. In this way, the story sometimes felt tedious and slow. But at the same time, it was this slow pace that made that mounting dread feel absolutely terrifying. There was too much time for me to think about how things would play out and how awful the consequences might be. The suspense unfolded itself slowly, and I would come back to reality with a sudden jolt and realize my throat was completely dry and my heart felt like it was being squeezed.

That said, the final third of the book was a bit anti-climatic for me. There were still secrets to be uncovered and villains to be dealt with, but the fear and trepidation I had been feeling was either realized or resolved during the middle third. Don't misunderstand: a lot happens in the last third (Anne Catherick's secret is finally revealed, Sir Percival and Count Fosco finally meet their match, etc.). I just wasn't on pins and needles about it.

This could have been due, in part, to the fact that the final third was narrated almost entirely by Walter Hartright (with just a couple of short explanations/confessions provided by Mrs. Catherick and Count Fosco). During the first two-thirds, the narrators changed a little more frequently, which I think helped keep up the pace.

Also, and here I am being totally biased, my favorite narrator was Marian Halcombe, and I was disappointed that after her first installment, the story never returned to her. Her account was both detailed and emotional, and I found myself missing her cold facts and heated opinions. If you're looking for a classic with a strong female character who keeps her head and is willing to go against propriety to get the job done, this is your book. Marian is absolutely fantastic. At one point, she hides on a balcony at midnight to eavesdrop on Count Fosco and Sir Percival. She squeezes herself between two plants and waits in the cold and rain for the information she wants. Need I say anymore to convince you that she is unconventional, brave, smart, and just simply amazing?

I actually wasn't expecting the changing perspectives at all. Granted, I have not read nearly as many classics as I should have/want to, but I guess I have always thought of this as a more modern literary technique. Obviously not. But now I am curious if Collins was one of the first authors to employ this type of narrative or if I've just been in the dark about some other classic works that tell the story from multiple viewpoints.

Speaking of the characters, I want to talk about a few of them in a little more detail:

Count Fosco was extremely complex, and I have to say that even though I despised him, Collins did a phenomenal job with showing just how persuasive and manipulative he could be. Towards the end of the book, Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe are discussing a kind (and fortuitous) act by the Count. Marian is wondering if the Count could have really done something out of the goodness of his heart and without any evil ulterior motives, and Mr. Hartright says, "I believe it, Marian. The best men are not consistent in good. Why should the worst men be consistent in evil?" I thought this was truly insightful because even though there was no way for the Count to redeem himself, I think it is true that everyone has some good in them, and every once in awhile, even the worst of men and women have a reason for that goodness to peek through.

Then there was Laura Fairlie, who, even though Walter and Marian adored her, I found to be rather spineless, extremely sensitive, and uninteresting. There were a few moments when I really thought she was going to come through and do something grand, but she always fell back to her childlike dependence. (Although, in her defense, at the beginning of the book, she did exhibit some really noble characteristics . . . and she did have some rather tragic events happen to her, which contributed to her neediness).

But Walter Hartright loved her, and even though I couldn't ever fathom why, I liked Walter a great deal. I thought it was interesting that even though he was a rather hopeless romantic (the occupation of artist suited this side of his personality very well), he was also very stable, hard-working, practical and determined. And his love for Laura was extremely devoted.

In fact, when he talked about his love for Laura at the beginning of the book (just before he departed Limmeridge House), I wanted to cry for the sheer injustice of it all:
"The cold fingers that trembled around mine, the pale cheeks with the bright red spot burning in the midst of them, the faint smile that struggled to live on her lips and died away from them while I looked at it told me at what sacrifice of herself her outward composure was maintained. My heart could take her no closer to me, or I should have loved her then as I had never loved her yet."
And this:
"I held [her hand] fast. My head drooped over it, my tears fell on it, my lips pressed it. Not in love, oh not in love, at that last moment, but in the agony and the self abandonment of despair."
Even if I would have preferred him to have a more vibrant counterpart, the love story was still bitter and poignant and sweet.

This has definitely been an autumn of mysteries for me (and I'm still hoping to get to one more), but I'm especially glad to have read this one. Wilkie Collins is considered to be one of the creators of the mystery genre (or so I gather from the little bit of reading I've done on him), and he set the stage for many of the great mystery novelists who would follow him. The plot was masterfully executed, and I'm so glad to have read it.


  1. I read this and his book, The Moonstone, ages and ages ago but I'd forgotten about them. Thanks for the little reminder.

  2. I love Wilkie Collins. I read The Moonstone in college, and then stumbled across this audiobook last year, and while I think The Moonstone is slightly better (I agree with you about the last third of TWIW, felt like the climax was over) I love both of them. Collins is a master at suspense. And I think Marian is one of my favorite female characters of all time. She is brilliant.

  3. I love you Amy, and keep on reading!!


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